I have returned from China. My RMB has been exchanged for coffee, my street buns for gyros, and my Chinese tea for….well no I’m still drinking tea.
In retrospect there were a few things I came to understand about tea from viewing multiple locations. Things I learned after seeing trends in tea farming and tea making all across the middle kingdom. One major thing I learned is the diversity of micro locations with in famous tea locations. I touched on this in my Hou Kui article, but I want to expand on it a bit. In this article I will talk a bit about the fact that even within specific tea locations, there are many different types of fields that can vastly effect the tea. For the sake of brevity I will not go too in depth into the science of why these fields are different or the effect of production on tea which is a huge factor in the final flavor. Both of these topics will be covered at a later date. For now I just want to introduce you guys to the complexity of famous tea terroirs and get you a little more interested in the study of good tea.
When it comes to tea locations is extremely important. This is why, with the best teas, you see a location attached to the name. The location adds so much to the flavor of the tea that saying where it is from should already say so much about the tea. That being said, it is not the end all be all. The general location while important, is not only a constant mark of quality. Famous locations are made up of many small fields, spread out over miles, each belonging to different people. Because of this just naming the location only says so much about the terroir. For the buyer the rest can only be told by the tea its self.
In the Bi Luo Chun article I mentioned that after Mao the land dedicated to tea that was once owned by the communist government was broke up and given to the farmers, but almost at random. Farmers got pieces of land in all sorts of microclimates, from the tops of mountains to the very bottom. What this means is that even with in the tea produced by each family, not all fields the teas are sourced from are created equal.
Take for example the tea made by the family I stayed with in Gan De. Gan De is surrounded by mountains, of various different heights. Around May 8th the lower part of the mountain begin to pick while the higher elevations were not quite ready for a day or two. Now it is important to understand that the later a tea blooms the better it is. Even in the case of green teas where you want a early pick, if one plant buds on April 1st and another on April 3rd, the later one is considered more desirable. This is because in those two days the still dormant bud has had a little more time to gain nutrients. On top of that the two plots have land have different soils. Lower plots tend to have more sandy, alkaline soil; the top tends to have more clay acidic soil which is the type of soil tea enjoys. These along with other factors start to give you the understanding that not all true origin teas are created equal, it is actually much more diverse than that.
Both of the land pictured above are owned by the same family, and are vastly different.
When the first pickings came in the farmers were rougher with it. They let it wither on the direct floor and packed the rolling machine, filling it to the brim. As the days went on though and the higher up teas started picking their practices started to change. Teas were dried on tarps, and the rolling machine was filled more mindfully, extra hands were brought in to make sure everything was done right and the general care for the tea was much higher. Why if these teas are from the same pristine locations, are some of them treated so much less significantly?
The reason for this is because for people who really know the tea, even though both teas are good teas, there is a giant significant in taste and therefore in price. The teas picked earlier in the season, from the lower elevation, will sell for significantly lower price. I was talking to a friend who is from the Tie Guan Yin village of Long Juan and she quoted the differences in tea prices within the village this year to be between 100 rmb and 500 rmb per 500 grams. The same mountain and the same year, does not mean the same tea.
In an industry where location is important and you often buy a tea based on the location it is from, you must still stay analytical even when you are given a tea from a famous location. Now I see that a lot of tea drinkers do this. You are given a tea from Zheng Yan Wuyi and you try to objectively tell if it is truly from Zheng Yan. This is good. But once you confirm it is from Zheng Yan it is important to take it a step further and decide if this is a tea that was made to really fit the Zheng Yan standard. Assuming a tea is going to be good just because it from a famous location is falling short of the mark and is damaging to the industry.
Now to be clear I am not undermining the importance of general locations. Saying a Phoenix oolong is from Wudong is significant. Even the worst Wudong fields, have soil and climate not present on other parts of the mountain. We are talking about analyzing the tea after it has been deemed a good tea; a second level of objective tasting if you will. Where this really becomes an important topic to understand is when you are looking at the difference in price between two companies. The understanding of quality differences within a famous locations will also help explain why two companies who sell the same tea from the same location can have two completely different price points. In fact they are two completely different teas that they paid two completely different prices for.